The Role of Government—and Christian Citizens

By John Stonestreet   •   October 3, 2013

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Where we are matters to God.

Scripture reinforces the fact that our national identity is an essential component of who we are as humans. The Apostle Paul suggested something along these lines when, speaking at Mars Hill, he proclaimed that God had “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him” (Acts 17:26-27, emphasis added).

Paul saw God’s sovereignty in placing us in particular countries and cultures. This implies, among other things, a responsibility. Included in the things we are to steward are our communities, our nation and our culture.

The command to “love your neighbor as yourself” was linked inextricably by Jesus with the command to love God. We are, for the sake of our neighbors, to do whatever good we can and promote whatever good we can. For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, loving his Jewish neighbor meant more than expressing personal kindness to individual Jews. It led him to resist and oppose his government’s decision to eradicate them.

Our Call to Care

Proverbs 29:2 says: “When the righteous increase, the people rejoice, but when the wicked rule, the people groan.” Government policies can allow behavior, restrict behavior or promote behavior. Like Bonhoeffer, Christians today should care whether those in charge are promoting human flourishing or human misery, whether they are restricting evil or restricting good.

None of this implies that the future of the Kingdom of God rests in the hands of our national leadership. The Kingdom of God rests securely in the King of kings, Jesus Christ. Still, a pietistic passivity or hopeless fatalism about politics misses the broad scope of our Christian concern: the love of God and the love of neighbor.

In July, British Prime Minister David Cameron proposed that the default position for all Internet service providers in the United Kingdom should be that pornography is blocked, unless the user specifically asks for it. He rightly suggested that easy access and non-accountability not only increases sexual addictions, it targets children who are often exposed first to porn not because they are looking for it, but because it is looking for them in the forms of pop-ups and twisted search results.

Cameron’s decision to restrict access to pornography stands in stark contrast to the recent decision by the Obama administration to provide minors the morning after pill over the counter and without a prescription. By doing this, the administration reversed its earlier stance to maintain age restrictions in order to side with a federal judge and so-called “reproductive rights” groups like Planned Parenthood. The new policy removes an important layer of protection from children. Minors involved in risky sexual behavior or exploitation will no longer even have to see a medical professional to be handed a pill to remove the consequences of their (or another’s) behavior.

Recently, with these and other decisions, our government has enacted policies that wrongly pit freedom against responsibility. However, without responsibility freedom is not sustainable. When freedom is wrongly defined as “free-for-all,” it creates addicts and victims and further removes a helpful moral framework from the daily lives of citizens. Christians should be alarmed by this promotion of evil.

Christians are also being increasingly asked to join in the promotion of evil, or else risk the loss of religious freedom. The San Antonio City Council recently proposed a ban on the election of any city council member who had “demonstrated a bias” in regards to sexual orientation or gender identity. This comes on the heels of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy suggesting in his majority opinion in the DOMA case that opposing same-sex marriage is nothing more than an attempt to demean, disparage and injure those “whose moral and sexual behavior the Constitution protects.” For a Denver baker who chose not to bake a cake for a same-sex couple’s “wedding” ceremony, this legal trajectory meant facing Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission, incurring fines and even potential jail time, despite other bakeries in the vicinity who would have provided the cake to the couple.

The stakes are too high for Christians to ignore. Our loyalties and courage are being tested. We must clarify our responsibility to God and our fellow citizens.

Christians and the State: A Way Forward

First, we must realize the importance of national leadership and the role it plays in the lives of every citizen, each of whom is made in the image of God. The government is not merely incidental to the concern of Christians. It matters who governs us, and it matters how we are governed.

Second, we must understand the proper function of government. Chuck Colson summarized the role of the state as preserving order and promoting justice. When the government oversteps this role, the other important institutions in society—especially the church and the family—are squeezed out of their proper role. Citizens suffer as a result, because the government cannot do what the family and the church are designed to do.

Third, we must balance our political attention. Alexis de Tocqueville noted in his masterful Democracy in America that our country was unique in that there were so many intermediary institutions that assisted citizens in governing themselves. Families, churches, voluntary associations and local governments served as a buffer between the individual and the state. In recent generations, these institutions have shrunk in their importance and effectiveness. Further, Christians today tend to focus an inordinate amount of our political attention on the White House and Congress, while neglecting local institutions. This has led to an ever-encroaching federal government assuming more territory than it should.

Finally, we must avoid what the French thinker Jacques Ellul called “the political illusion.” Politics, as has been often noted, is most often “downstream” of culture. If we focus on politics while ignoring the larger cultural shifts that drive political decisions, we will find political victories to be temporary at best. Our efforts for the public good must take seriously politics, as well as all else that shapes our society.

We are Christians. We are Americans. Now, as ever, passivity is not an option for the church of Jesus Christ. “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”  ©2013 John Stonestreet

*Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

John Stonestreet is a speaker and fellow of the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and co-host with Eric Metaxas of the daily radio commentary BreakPoint. Listen to BreakPoint on radio or at breakpoint.org.

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4 Comments

  1. Kenneth says:

    Great article!What our nation desperately needs is God's word proclaimed with power. It is the power unto salvation, and we need saving.

  2. pete says:

    1. Realize, 2) understand, 3) balance, 4) avoid….what about “Do”? The conclusion talks about acting, but how? I'm curious how other readers feel they are invited to respond. What action are you prompted to after reading this? Great article!

  3. Steve says:

    de Tocqueville also said 'America is great because America is good and if America ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.' But the goodness we all need comes because God acts, therefore prayer is essential. Much prayer. Alone and together.

  4. Allison says:

    This is great, John. Perhaps squeezing the government out of the responsibilities they weren't given…by simply doing all we should even if it costs us more in the meantime…would be a great start. Helping the gov get smaller by getting bigger. :)